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How Are Attack Vectors and Attack Surfaces Related?

How Are Attack Vectors and Attack Surfaces Related

Attack vectors and attack surfaces are deeply intertwined cybersecurity concepts. In a nutshell, an attack surface is the sum of all attack vectors in a system or network. The more attack vectors your organization has, the larger your attack surface is.

Understanding these important cybersecurity concepts is required if you want to stay in the know about significant events and trends in the community. Knowing how they are related will also help you keep up when reading threat reports or thought leadership articles in cybersecurity magazines that repeatedly use the terms.

A more urgent reason for organizations to understand these basic cybersecurity concepts more deeply, though, is Gartner’s prediction that attack surface expansion will be the number 1 security and risk management trend.

Table of Contents

Attack Vector versus Attack Surface: Are They the Same?

We’ll discuss the differences and similarities between attack vectors and attack surfaces in greater detail below.

How Are Attack Vectors and Attack Surfaces Related?

What Is an Attack Vector?

An attack vector is a method attackers use to exploit system vulnerabilities. Its primary purpose is to deliver a malicious payload that carries a code that can harm or steal data from a computer or network.

Attack vectors are essentially the “hows” in the cyber attack equation, outlining the precise path an attacker can take to achieve malicious goals. They typically have these key aspects:

  • Exploitability: An attack vector targets a potential vulnerability or weakness within a system, whether a software bug, an unpatched system, a misconfigured setting, or a human error.
  • Delivery mechanism: This describes how an attacker delivers an exploit to a target system. It may involve embedding malicious software into seemingly harmless files, phishing attacks tricking users into clicking malicious links, or exploiting unsecured network connections.
  • Impact: The attack path ultimately leads to a specific outcome, which may range from data exfiltration and system disruption to complete system takeover and financial gain.

Understanding these aspects can help security teams develop and implement adequate security measures.

What Are Common Types of Attack Vectors?

Some of the most common types of attack vectors include:

  • Phishing messages: Deceptive messages that come in the form of emails, text messages, or online chats and aim to trick users into revealing sensitive information. Attackers often use the information they collected in phishing messages to gain unauthorized access to target systems.
  • Weak passwords: Passwords that are easily cracked or guessed can give threat actors an open door to user accounts and any system or application connected to the particular accounts.
  • Software vulnerabilities: Many cyber attacks begin with the exploitation of an application’s vulnerabilities. As such, updating software and operating systems (OSs) to patch known vulnerabilities regularly is essential.
  • Outdated encryption techniques: Attackers can detect systems with outdated encryption algorithms. They can then crack the weak encryption and gain unauthorized access to sensitive information.

These are just some examples. Anything that serves as an attack entry point can be considered an attack vector.

Threat Vector versus Attack Vector: What’s the Difference?

A threat vector and an attack vector are essentially the same. Both phrases refer to methods that attackers use to infiltrate systems. As such, they can be used interchangeably.

What Is an Attack Surface?

An attack surface refers to all the potential ways attackers can exploit a system. The more attack vectors an organization has, the larger its attack surface is. To reduce your attack surface, you must bring down your number of attack vectors.

What Are the Various Types of Attack Surfaces?

Organizations have different kinds of attack surfaces. They have a physical surface comprising servers, devices, data centers, buildings, and other infrastructure exposed to the physical world.

On the other hand, they also have digital attack surfaces often categorized into:

  • External: This includes external-facing digital assets, such as websites, applications, cloud environments, and other Internet-connected systems.
  • Internal: Assets that are not exposed to the Internet make up your internal attack surface. They can only be accessed by authorized users and are usually implemented on-premises.

What Are the Common Examples of Digital Attack Surfaces?

An organization’s digital infrastructure comprises different parts that attackers may target. Before coming up with a complete picture of their attack surface, security teams may need to look at each part of the infrastructure separately. Below are some components forming the total surface.

  • Software: This is a massive part of an organization’s total attack surface, especially for digital businesses. Security teams must scrutinize their OSs, applications, websites, web applications, and cloud services and ensure no unpatched vulnerabilities or other attack entry points are left.
  • Networks: Whether the organization uses wireless, wired, or a combination of both connection types, it’s essential to secure these systems to prevent attackers from intercepting communications. That begins with identifying and mitigating the most common network vulnerabilities.
  • Databases: An organization’s corporate data and employees’ personal information can also be considered part of its  attack surface since they are often attackers’ ultimate targets. Therefore, security teams must check any potential entry point that can provide attackers access to them.
  • Supply chain: Threat actors are increasingly targeting third-party suppliers, knowing that they can infiltrate several organizations and access tons of personally identifiable information (PII) with a single successful attack. In 2022 alone, 10 million individuals were affected by supply chain attacks. As such, organizations must also have visibility over their supply chain attack surface.
  • Cloud services: Cloud-based applications and the anything-as-a-service (XaaS) movement are helpful or even indispensable to many organizations. However, these services also compound the number of digital assets exposed to the public and attackers, making the cloud another attack surface component to monitor.

How Do Threat Actors Exploit Attack Vectors?

Before launching an attack, threat actors meticulously scout their targets. They examine an organization’s attack surface, searching for vulnerabilities like misconfigured systems, unprotected assets, or software flaws. Techniques like network sniffing help them gather data on these weaknesses, and social engineering tactics may be used to trick employees into revealing sensitive information.

Once they gain a foothold, attackers can choose between two primary approaches:

  • Active attack: These methods directly disrupt or alter a system. Attackers can deploy malicious payloads (code) to damage systems, encrypt data for ransom, or steal information. These attacks are often readily detectable because they cause disruptions to normal operations. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are primary examples of active attacks. Threat actors often use a network of infected devices (i.e., botnet) to directly interact with the target system, flooding it with requests until it crashes.
  • Passive attack: In contrast, threat actors performing passive attacks interact with the target system indirectly. They may eavesdrop on a network by analyzing and monitoring traffic to determine patterns and behaviors. Attackers can use sniffing, where they observe and intercept network traffic to obtain sensitive data being transmitted, such as login information, bank details, and other sensitive data. Passive attacks aim to gather information covertly, making them more challenging to identify.
How Do Threat Actors Exploit Attack Vectors: Active vs Passive Attacks

Threat actors constantly scan and map out target organizations’ attack surfaces to identify vulnerabilities they can exploit. Organizations need to act quickly to remediate vulnerabilities and reduce their number of potential attack vectors before the bad guys can get to them.

Ready to learn more about how Attaxion can help you win the security rat race by giving you complete visibility over your attack surface? Schedule a customized demo now.

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